Boy Back to School

Back to School: What’s different for boys about school?

In The Blog by Dr James Wellborn

Another school year is getting underway and parents are thinking ahead about how to make this year a success for their kids.  Parents of boys should be particularly attentive.  Boys are not doing so well academically these days compared to girls.  School age boys represent 71% of suspensions and drop out of school at 4 times the rate of girls.  Seventy-five percent of special education referrals are boys.  Girls make better grades and are better at getting their homework done.  Once in college, boys represent only 41% of bachelor’s degrees and 40% of master’s degrees.

Why are boys more academically at risk?  There seem to be a combination of factors that put boys at risk for poor academic performance and failure, some of which begin at a very young age.  Boys are more active than girls and are slower to develop verbal skills.  With an emphasis on literacy being pushed all the way back into kindergarten, this puts boys behind the eight ball from the start.  Classrooms are designed to teach focused, diligent and non-disruptive students.  This is not the typical behavior of young boys.  Teachers appear to perceive boys to be poorer students and grade them down for “classroom behavior” compared to girls despite performing as well or better on achievement tests.  Not surprisingly then, while girls and boys have similar levels of intelligence, girls are more likely to say that school and good grades are important and to work harder at school assignments than do boys.  Finally, archaic gender stereotypes affect what boys consider appropriate boy behavior.  “Guy rules” demand that boys be tough, physically and psychologically dominant, aggressive, competitive and independent.  What if they can’t fulfill these in school, from the beginning, especially in relation to GIRLS!

What’s a parent to do?  Short of changing the structure and organization of school and leading a revolution to change society’s gender stereotypes, what can parents do about these challenges to their boy’s sense of self and success in school?

Be aware and stay connected to your boy.  Knowing that these sometimes rather subtle forces are influencing your son’s competence and self-confidence is important.  Make sure you dig a little deeper when he talks about school.  Look for signs he may be frustrated and disengaging.  Frustration about a difficult homework assignment is a good thing.  Frustration about never succeeding in school or a dislike for learning is a serious problem.

Redefine masculinity.  Male gender identity is a real, legitimate and separate but parallel process to that of female gender identity.  The old definitions of manhood and masculinity were developed in previous eras to address different challenges faced by humans.  While there is value in identifying masculine virtues, boys and men need a definition of masculinity that is inclusive, flexible and attainable in these modern times.   Parents need to help their sons transform traditional masculine characteristics from things they do (e.g., dominance, control, etc.) into personal qualities.  Dominance is better manifested as leadership.  Toughness is better exercised as determination.   Independence is reflected in confidence.  Invulnerability is one part of courage.  Love is really about intimacy.   Control is necessary for responsibility.  Power is less likely to be abused when the focus is on strength.  Intensity combined with joy is expressed as passion.  These qualities are consistent with studying, knowing things and striving to perform well in school.  They fit a more traditional masculine ideology (for those kids who operate from within that framework) while also representing universal (and non-gender exclusive) human virtues that are more applicable to the 21st century work force.  An additional benefit is that this definition of masculinity has a place for sensitive, less stereotypic boys.

Expect your son to work hard for good grades.  Effort is the one thing your kid can control that relates to success.  Girls are academically outperforming boys in part because they put effort into it.  Their effort pays off.  Make it clear to your boy that you expect him to work hard at school.  Being responsible means completing assignments.  Being determined means buckling down to do his best.  He should hear from you about the importance of school.  He should know how schooling relates to better opportunities in adulthood.  He should see you emphasizing the importance of doing well in school by setting limits around homework and grades.  Encourage them when they complete assignments.  Comment on how pleased you are by hard work.  Celebrate when they do well.  If he wasn’t as successful as you or he would like, adjust the studying plan with them and get back to work.

Focus on mastery over performance.  Learning is really about thinking and knowledge.  The most common method to assess mastery is using a test measuring recall.  But, how a kid performs on a test is only one indication of mastery.  And, for some kids it is a poor measure.  Make sure that you emphasize what they learned in addition to what grade they get.

Shape assignments to their interests.  It is a pretty standard educational practice to provide diverse ways for students to demonstrate knowledge and mastery.  This has been very helpful for kids with different learning styles.  That would also be many boys.  Try to find ways your son can complete assignments based on his strengths and interests.  Look for ways he would actually have fun learning.  Be creative.

Tie school effort to things they care about.  Despite all the subtle strategies you use to keep your kid engaged in school, you will also have to make it worth their while to put in the work.   Before they get to do fun stuff, require them to devote a set amount of time to homework and studying.  The one exception to this would be extra-curricular activities.  The success, confidence and fun your kid can derive from involvement in these activities are too important to use as a punishment.

Keep an eye out for old fashioned (or just plain bad) teachers.  How do you know?  For any correction and discipline administered, there should be encouragement and support offered.  Correction should be through guidance, redirection and subtle signaling of misbehavior (rather than criticism and put downs in front of the class).  Discipline should not include limiting active play time.  If a teacher comments about your son being a poor student (e.g., inattentive, lack of persistence or eagerness to learn, inability to sit still and work independently), there should be opportunities in the classroom for active, hands on learning (his strength) in addition to interventions to improve his skills at being a good student.

The challenges boys face are not a “boys versus girls” thing.  The strategies for addressing these challenges can be effective for any kid.  Indeed, many kids will successfully make their way through school without the benefit of these strategies, some of them are even boys.  These strategies are important because they are crucial to the success of the kids who really need them.  That turns out to be many of our boys.

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